One thing you say or do can still change a child's life, but is that enough anymore?
When I first began training camp counselors a decade ago, I loaded the program with an inspiring message designed to provoke in them a genuine and lasting sense of how important their role is in the lives of children. Along with very useful counseling and rapportbuilding skills taught in a unique way, the training was filled with poignant, often highly personal, stories of how one thing said or done by a camp counselor, not only impacted the rest of these campers' summers, but in some cases their entire lives.
In the initial years, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
Then about five years ago, things began to change. This program, which had basically remained unchanged, suddenly began to lose its appeal. I was dealing with more side conversations while I was speaking and had to stop to address this. The exercises that once provoked such excitement began to fall flat. More counselors were overtly sarcastic in responses to questions I asked. They just challenged for the sake of challenging, or they mistrusted what I was offering as some inauthentic form of manipulation. At first these outspoken staff members did so to the dismay of their co-staff members who found their rudeness and arrogance off-putting and even embarrassing. Then, by the last two summers, the behavior of these dissenters began being met with indifference and even agreement from many fellow staff. In the extreme, they could turn this into a case of discrediting the messenger as a means of discrediting the message.
By the middle of last summer, I'd had enough. They had changed, and now it was my turn. I spent several days last July contemplating what was going on and — through much consideration and several significant breakthrough realizations — began to understand things from the perspective of this generation and to appreciate why they are the way they are.
I revamped my program, essentially scrapping 90 percent of what had always worked successfully. The next two camps I visited heard the new style of presentation — the new attitude and the new content . . . and it worked. The change in response from the audience was remarkable. This article shares what I've discovered — what it takes to reach this generation of camp staff and lead them to greatness.
THESE Camp Counselors Are Not THOSE Camp Counselors
Much buzz has been echoing through camp conferences over the past few years as people speak about Generation X — their sense of entitlement, expectations of preferential treatment, and me-first attitude.
Speakers and authors address what we see on the surface and strategies on how to "manage" this generation of staff effectively. However, it is crucial to look beneath the surface and consider much deeper and broader factors affecting behavior.
Who They Are
They are cynical, mistrusting, and feel entitled; yet, paradoxically, they are genuinely wanting something better.
This is the generation who came of age with Chicken Soup For The Soul books and the barrage of nostalgic, touching e-mails that end with an indirect threat of how much bad will come to them if they don't forward this to everyone they know, quickly. They've seen every sappy film on Netflix, and prefer the mockeries of this sentimentality that they find on YouTube. They've heard it all before. Never mind that our ‘making a difference in the life of a child' stories are legitimate. They find sappy, emotional stories dull; suspect they are disingenuous; and often, though they may agree, follow this with a belief that "one isn't enough" in a world that is so troubled.
This is the generation that has grown up with 9/11 as the defining moment of their childhood. They have grown up with a controversial war in the news every day, whose legitimacy and need many of them question. They have grown up with the detrimental impact of global warming and the unforgettable images of ice caps melting, species going extinct, and a government that is seemingly doing nothing substantial about it. They have watched their parents' approach to capitalism, valuing material items and image — doing anything to keep looking and appearing young. They have grown up with 40+ percent of marriages ending in divorce. They are the first generation of Americans to grow up with a majority of them believing the world will be worse for them than it was for their parents. They not only do not trust authority, they do not inherently respect members of the older generations, period.
They have grown up with the Internet and technology that allow them instant access to information and instant access to immediate gratification on a scale never before known to humankind. They have grown up with almost one in seven of them medicated for some psychological disorder at some point — diagnosis and prescription drug treatment are common and preferred over prevention and the hard work of living healthy. They have grown up with an extreme fixation and pressure on test scores, which has taken away the little joy there was left in learning. They've come to expect that we should make them feel good, be entertaining, and convey information in text message-sized sound bites that can be memorized and then forgotten after the quiz. All this, plus they don't want to have to think outside of school. (Sadly, in many cases, their schooling never taught them to genuinely think critically.)
Parents fixated on self-esteem endlessly praised their children for their intelligence and good looks. They reinforced their children's sense of entitlement by engaging in countless debates with their kids and offering endless explanations to them as if they are owed them. They did everything they could to ensure their children were victorious, including offering excuses on their kid's behalf to keep them from ever suffering real consequences in the system. One need only watch half the shows on MTV to see how this plays out. Those who come from these homes have an unrealistic sense of self-importance. Those who don't come from such families understand the inherent corruption in the system that rewards those who have and gives them an immeasurable advantage over those who don't.
When all this is combined together, we get a profile of a complex young adult. They are nearly as worldly as they think they are. Their sense of intimacy is vastly distorted by things like the ease of getting friends with a few clicks on Facebook (Survey your staff and find out the average number of friends they have on Facebook. It will likely be 200 or more!) — and how easy it is to get sexual attention and gratification without genuine emotional and personal intimacy. They have a distorted sense of their self-importance, and yet simultaneously an emerging profound disgust, even rage at their inability to get the world at large to conform to their ideals — ideals which perhaps ironically in spite of all else, seem overwhelmingly in favor of preserving the future for life on earth!
Granted what I am describing here may not yet be the majority of today's twentysomething camp counselors in every camp across the country. They may still be a small, yet vocal, minority in many camps. The trend though is moving in this direction, and they are rapidly becoming the majority.
So if nostalgic, emotionally laden messages about changing a child's life and the sense of meaning and fulfillment that comes from this are not going to inspire today's camp counselor or compel most of them to make the effort to become great counselors (which takes effort and learning), what will?
The Hidden Motivator
The hidden motivator of today's young adult staff is not meaning and purpose, nor is it fun and excitement.
In the "old days," the motivation to learn to work effectively with kids came from things like deeply caring about quality work and the intrinsic sense of gratification and fulfillment that comes from making a positive difference in another person's life. These are based on "feeling good."
The new motivation is power, not just to feel powerful, but to become powerful. What does power have to do with being an effective camp counselor? Everything.
I watch camp counselors going to pieces as groups of ten-year-olds defy their authority and break rules anyway. I watch thirteenyear- old girls smile and say everything right to their counselor, then the moment she looks away resume the behavior they just vowed to stop. Many counselors have the hardest time just getting a bunk quiet at night . . . the list is endless.
Yes, it takes power to get a group of elevenyear- olds to stop behaving like ungrateful brats and turn them into people who are appreciative and respectful. Yes, it takes power to encourage a thirteen-year-old girl who has a terrible self-image to have confidence.
Ultimately, it takes power to engage anyone — campers, fellow staff, or fellow citizens of the earth — to be heard and taken seriously by them. To demonstrate this power requires an attitude that transcends taking things personally or needing to feel good about the work being meaningful. I know this is counter to what camp has traditionally been, yet it is also much better aligned with what motivates and compels this generation to be interested and to take action.
This greater sense of personal power, framed and taught in just the right way in camp, can provide staff with the opportunity to make a difference in the world on the scale they want to make it, while simultaneously being a positive influence in the lives of their campers.
Camp as an industry typically focuses on teaching counselors how to deal with problems. This new approach, though, is about teaching them how to create a context for others in which problems do not even come up. This is the essence of being positively powerful.
Overcoming Skepticism, Doubt, and Cynicism
The major challenge is to overcome their skepticism of positive possibilities and the mistrust of adults that is pervasive in the minds of many of this generation. This skepticism often turns to cynicism. Until this is addressed and resolved, the likelihood of dissension in staff is not only probable, it is almost unavoidable.
This requires camp leaders who establish their authenticity and credibility as leaders who truly "get it" and who are both at heart and in mind "one of them" — camp leaders who are exemplars of who these young staff can become. Sharing your own concerns about the world condition or your distress about the environment is one way to make this connection with staff who have the very same concerns — to build a bond of credibility. Don't try to be clever, inspirational, or motivational — rather, be totally authentic and simultaneously focused with uncompromising conviction to make a huge and lasting impact on the world.
This is why so many young people are engaged in the current political process with overwhelming support for Barack Obama. They perceive their candidate as the real thing — someone who is both "one of them" and also the ideal of who they can become. They believe he is not speaking to them just to try and make them feel good — for his own personal gain — but rather sharing what he truly thinks and feels. They admire his candidness about his past behaviors and his vision for the future. His rhetoric, including the sometimes overtly arrogant tone he's taken to challenge those who represent the "old" way, resonates with this generation as no other politician has in a very long time. He makes young people feel empowered to make genuine change — and young voters are lining up to do so. Young adults are showing us that to them likeability isn't as important as authenticity.
The second great challenge is teaching skills and guiding staff in ways that genuinely leave them not only feeling more empowered, but becoming more empowered in a way that translates to the rest of their lives. Many of the skills that typically are taught about things like facilitating group discussions, resolving conflicts, and handling homesickness can have much greater value to their lives beyond the summer, but just how and why must be made much more explicit.
There are other skills not always taught in camp, yet which may have a more direct and universal value to young adults. These include teaching the subtleties of how to facilitate a group meeting — to captivate and to command the attention of others — to earn respect.
Teaching these skills and attitudes is much more demanding than following the established model of formulaic processes, ice breakers, and feel-good activities — and is typically more effectively taught in small groups with shorter, more focused sessions ideally followed up with mentoring and coaching from experienced leaders. While the downside may be a challenge to implement, the upside far outweighs the downside.
Imagine a staff of young adults who are positively oriented — who want to be part of a team that is doing work of significant and lasting value in the world. This goal obliterates the indifference, skepticism, and cynicism that has so infected the minds of this generation and frees them to begin a proactive journey toward becoming the kind of people who are taken seriously and who make a significant impact in the world.
I began this article with the question, "One thing you say or do can change a child's life, but is that enough anymore?" I'll end with this thought — Stop trying to teach them how to make a difference in one child's life. Teach them instead how to make a positive and lasting impact on the lives of thousands. This is where the greatest potential for the future of camp resides.
© Likone Corp 2008
Jeffrey Leiken, M.A., offers advanced training for camp leaders and innovative programs for helping camps turn their teens into extraordinary young adults. To learn more about his cutting-edge work, visit www.CampLeadership.net, or contact him at Jeff@JeffreyLeiken.com, 415-441-8218.
Originally published in the 2008 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.